The words “piety” and “pious” have an archaic ring; moderns find them hard to use without irony or a sneer. Pejorative senses of the words predominate, such as those the Oxford English Dictionary gives for “piety” (“a sanctimonious statement, a commonplace”) and for “pious” (“hypocritically virtuous; self-righteous; sanctimonious”). The words conjure in the profane mind the image of superstitious old women kneeling before statues in church, clutching their rosaries and holy cards. Only readers of old literature are aware of the richer and nobler senses of the words in the premodern West, as in the Confucian East, where the virtue of piety (禮 or li is the Chinese correlative) was regarded as the lynchpin of the social and political virtues. As Cicero wrote, “In all probability, the disappearance of piety toward the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social union among men as well, and of justice itself, the queen of all the virtues.” Today, his prediction threatens to become reality.
A virtue is a settled disposition of character, a capacity to act well rooted in human nature but strengthened by custom, good mores, education, and (above all) good examples. Piety is the virtue that enables us to do what is right in relation to our family, friends, benefactors, country, and God. It supports the general virtue of justice, because it disposes us to render to each what is its due. “Piety underlies the virtue of justice,” says Cicero. “It is that by which we reverence our parents and other elders, our relatives, friends, benefactors, and likewise our country, which is another parent, and likewise God.” This reverence or regard is closely allied with notions of love, charity, devotion, holiness.
In uncorrupt societies, children grow up with a sense of gratitude for the unearned benefits they have received. If we have normal moral responses, we feel grateful for all the things we have been given that we have done nothing to deserve: the love and nurture of parents and family; the kindness of friends and benefactors; the benefits of a well-ordered society; the freedoms we enjoy thanks to the sacrifices of our countrymen; the beauty and bounty of nature, which God pours down upon us every day. We have to admit, if we are honest, that we have done little to deserve what we have been given. We have, indeed, done many things that would justify our being stripped of what we have been given. If we have any decency—if we know what is decens, what is fitting—our only response can be gratitude and love for family, country, and God. We have obligations we can never repay, and that fact imposes on us an obligation of loyalty to the sources of those benefits. The proper human response to all the unearned blessings we have received is pietas.
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